Thursday, October 25, 2012

Looking Back on an Orchid-filled Year

Your blogger sits at his desk on a unseasonably warm fall afternoon, watching the last of the golden yellow black maple leaves swirl in the breeze out the opened window.  Each fall the tree consistently puts on a spectacular show just outside my door and this year has been no different.  Those few days of prime color and full branches can't be beat but is a sure sign the growing season has come to yet another inevitable close and leaves me with the memories and lingering excitement of the season's experiences.

Going through and organizing all my notes and checklists from the year is the final nail in the coffin for the growing season.  As I sort and compile the final number of vascular plant species I encountered on my botanical forays and romps, all the details are quickly recalled and allow me to reminisce on each outing into my beloved natural world.  Last year (2011) saw over 1,300 species grace my notes with this year falling a bit short of that number with just under 1,200.  That includes exploring all four corners of Ohio, parts of Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, New York, and West Virginia along with quite a few miles on the Subaru.  The most anticipated and important final tally is of course the members from the Orchidaceae  family.  Likewise with my overall count, this year fell a bit short from the previous season (52) but 47 is still a mighty fine quota if you ask me!

I'd like to share some of my favorite orchid finds and experiences of the year and focus mostly on species that I have not shown on this blog before.  Some are old friends I've seen consecutive years now and never disappoint while others were personal firsts and left me with a lighter life list to chase in the future.  I've said it before but I'll say it again: there is almost nothing better than waiting all that time, getting over all the near misses, and finally making that elusive orchid's acquaintance.  My dream is to make every attempt at finding and photographing every indigenous species of orchid to North America before my time runs out.  I don't expect to ever achieve that goal but I'm more than willing to die trying!

Pink Lady's Slipper  ~  Cypripedium acaule

The season started out fast due to this past spring's hot start.  I can remember temperatures in the low 80's while photographing snow trillium (Trillium nivale) in early March.  Not exactly something one would normally expect but with the way the climate is changing, I fear it's a reality we'll be forced to get used to.  By mid-April the year's first orchids were up and blooming with the pink lady's slippers (Cypripedium acaule) leading the charge.  Despite having seen them more times than just about any orchid I'm still mesmerized by their unique structure and delicate beauty.

Spring Coralroot  ~  Corallorhiza wisteriana

Late April found me hiking the rolling hills of southwestern Ohio for the spring coralroot (Corallorhiza wisteriana) on its mesic lower slopes of deciduous forest.  Certainly much smaller and less noticeable than the pink lady's slipper but still has a charm all its own with its magenta speckled lower lip.

Small White Lady's Slipper  ~  Cypripedium candidum

Early May bestows the lucky few with one of the state's greatest moments and treasures in the small white lady's slippers (Cypripedium candidum).  This miniscule orchid has labellums (pouches) the size of a sparrow's egg and can only be found in an extremely limited number of counties in the state.  These particular plants were photographed in a hanging dolomite-limestone prairie in Adams county.

Shining Ladies'-tresses  ~  Spiranthes lucida

Not long after the small white lady's slippers have come and gone I know it's time to pay a visit to a mucky sedge meadow in nearby Pike county to see the earliest of Ohio's ladies'-tresses orchid to open up its flowers.  Scattered around the muddy seep by the dozens are the unmistakable white and yellow blooms of the shining ladies'-tresses (Spiranthes lucida).  While the Spiranthes  genus can cause some novice wildflower enthusiasts fits, this species is the easiest of all to identify by its spring bloom date and striking yellow throat.

Long-bracted Orchid  ~  Coeloglossum viride

A particular weekend in late May saw your blogger mark off two long-awaited life species in one long, road-weary day.  First up was one that won't win any beauty contests or make the normal person drive three hours to see but I've never claimed to be 'normal', especially when it comes to orchids.  The long-bracted orchid (Coeloglossum viride) is an endangered species in Ohio and one I had never been able to track down or find.  So when a friend suggested a site in northeastern Indiana, I jumped at the chance and was not disappointed in my search.  Even under close inspection its hard to see if the flowers are even open and believe it or not the photograph above shows a plant in full bloom.  The thin yellowish-green lip hanging below a darker green hood of sepals must have given someone the impression of a frog as this plant also goes by the common name of frog orchid.

Dragon's-mouth Orchid  ~  Arethusa bulbosa

Easily the most exciting and memorable of all the new orchid finds this year happened later in the day after coming across the long-bracted orchid above.  Growing in a floating sphagnum bog in southeastern Michigan was the subject of many a day dream and wish I had wanted to see for years on end with no luck.  The dragon's-mouth orchid (Arethusa bulbosa) is in my opinion one of the most stunning and perfectly sculpted wildflowers on earth.  Rising from a small bulb situated in the cold, water-saturated sphagnum below is a solitary bloom with its mythical jaws wide open and vivid pink crown situated above.  Averting one's eyes from its royal and piercing appearance is nigh on impossible, as is making the decision to depart and leave its timeless beauty behind.

Northern Tubercled Orchid  ~  Platanthera flava var. herbiola

Early June found myself ankle deep in mud and surrounded by an impenetrable cloud of mosquitos in the depths of a swamp forest in north-central Ohio.  What I paid for in blood and itchy welts was well worth the price as I looked out across a dense sea of northern tubercled orchid (Platanthera flava var. herbiola).  This small, green orchid gets its name from the small bump or tubercle at the back of the lower lip that is believed to direct its pollinators to one of the two pollinia above.

Lesser Purple Fringed Orchid  ~  Platanthera psycodes

If spring is the time of the Cypripedium  orchids then the summer months are the reign of the Platantheras.  Commonly called the 'fringed' or 'rein' orchids, these large or small wands of many individual flowers rank among the most charming and exquisite of our native wildflowers.  In the later half of June and early July, a few of Ohio's swamp forests are home to the lesser purple fringed orchid (Platanthera psycodes), a potentially-threatened species in our state.  Its dainty, purple inflorescences look like dancing angels under the darkened, murky forest canopy.

E. Prairie Fringed Orchid  ~  Platanthera leucophaea

There's no way I could pass over the chance to see my favorite of our orchids each June; especially when they are so close to my childhood home back in west-central Ohio.  The federally threatened eastern prairie fringed orchid (Platanthera leucophaea) was once more common in the wet meadows, prairies, and shorelines of Ohio and the surrounding great lake states but has been nearly eradicated by man's plow and development.  It really is hard to pick a favorite out of so many good and close friends but I am drawn to this species like none other and really have no specific reason why.  Seeing it in person should be on any botanist or naturalist's bucket list!

Greater Purple Fringed Orchid  ~  Platanthera grandiflora

Sometimes seeing a particular orchid requires one to leave Ohio behind and explore areas outside her borders to find what you're looking for.  One of those species is the greater purple fringed orchid (Platanthera grandiflora), an extirpated species in our state that hasn't graced our soils in nearly a century.  A drive down to the cranberry glades botanical area of West Virginia was just the trick to see this stunner this past late June and proved to be quite the botanical significant day.  I plan to take you along for the trip in its own blog post in the near future.

White Fringed Orchid  ~  Platanthera blephariglottis

July saw me pay a visit to good friend and brilliant naturalist/blogger Jackie in upstate New York.  There she would show me one of my other long-awaited orchid life species: the white fringed orchid (Platanthera blephariglottis).  The huge expanse of grounded black spruce and tamarack sphagnum bog produced many gorgeous plants that I couldn't get enough of.  For a detailed look at this experience you can check out this blog post right here.

Purple Fringeless Orchid  ~  Platanthera peramoena

Upon my return to Ohio from an unforgettable time in the southern Adirondacks, I ventured out not too far from my residence in southeastern Ohio to see another one of nature's floral perfections.  Looking strikingly familiar to the aforementioned greater purple fringed orchid, this is the purple fringeless orchid (Platanthera peramoena).  Take a glance at the lower lip of each individual inflorescence and you'll see the margins are largely entire and do not exhibit any 'fringing', hence its common name.

Cranefly Orchid  ~  Tipularia discolor

Arguably one of southern Ohio's most common species of orchid is also one of the hardest to see in flower.  The cranefly orchid (Tipularia discolor) gets its name from the flower's appearance to dancing craneflies; a large, short-lived type of insect from the Tipulidae  family.  Their greenish-purple racemes of flowers bloom in late summer in the darkened under stories of deciduous forests making for a frustrating experience.  It's best to find and mark these plants in the winter when their over-wintering leaves are visible and frequently encountered, then check back on them in mid-late July to catch them blooming.  The uniform, artificial black background really helps to make this orchid stand out when photographing it.

Grass-leaved Ladies'-tresses  ~  Spiranthes vernalis

You know the orchid season is approaching wrap up time when the Spiranthes  genus starts to really kick into gear.  One of the earliest to show its face is the grass-leaved ladies'-tresses (S. vernalis), a locally frequent species in the southeastern quarter of the state.  Another common name for this orchid is the spring ladies'-tresses due to its ability to flower as early as April in the southern parts of its range.  Since it doesn't bloom until August here in Ohio I see no reason to go by that name here.

Small Ladies'-tresses  ~  Spiranthes tuberosa

One particular species of late-summer flowering orchid isn't all that uncommon but its tiny stature makes it seem impossible to find.  The adequately named small ladies'-tresses (Spiranthes tuberosa) has pure white, crystalized flowers so small you could fit four or five on your pinkie nail alone!  I wish I had my finger in the photo above to show just how small these plants are!

Autumn Coralroot  ~  Corallorhiza odontorhiza

All good times must come to an end and I know the end is nigh when I see the autumn or late coralroot (Corallorhiza odontorhiza) blooming come September and into October.  While some say you save the best for last, I could hardly say that holds true for Ohio's orchids when your last species to bloom are these guys.

2012 was an incredible season for this passionately obsessed botanist and left me only wanting more and extremely hopeful and excited for 2013.  The only thing that gets me through the dark, cold winter months is the promise I get to do this all over again next year.  I'll be here to bring it all to you and hope you follow along as I'm sure there will be more than enough to share!

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Fall in the Oak Openings

This time of the year always leaves your blogger running around like a chicken with its head cut off.  The waning sunlit hours and dropping temperatures coincide with the season's last gasp of wildflowers and with winter's chill just on the horizon the mad dash is on to soak in every last colorful detail.  A couple weekends ago I decided to spend a Saturday roaming the famed Oak Openings region of northwest Ohio.  I had been several times before in the spring and early summer but never this late in the growing season and was excited to see the changes and fall color that was sure to accompany my visit.

Located just west of Toledo in Lucas, Henry, and Fulton counties, the oak openings encompasses one of Ohio's (and the world's) most rare and endangered of habitats and is home to a very diverse number of the state's rare plants/animals.  Comprised of over 150 square miles of oak savanna mixed with intermittent wet meadows and prairie, the ecosystem sits on a very sandy soil matrix over top an impermeable layer of clay.  Why all the sand in the middle of landlocked Ohio?  We'll get to that in a minute.  This unique region got its name from the early pioneers and settlers that found the extensive tract of sandy, dry ridges and wet meadows scattered with groves of oaks (primarily black oak) and coined the seemingly inevitable name honoring the openings and the, well...oaks!

Wet sedge meadow within the Oak Openings

So about all that sand.  Rolling sand dunes with no water in sight can cause one to scratch their head but luckily there is a rather simple and interesting geological answer.  Around 14,000 years ago as the most recent glacial epoch was winding to a close, the newly carved Great Lakes basin filled with melt water from the massive receding ice sheets and began to shape the landscape as we see it today.  As the ice shelf shifted and water levels fluctuated, a distinct sequence of named and recognized pre-Erie lakes formed; each leaving behind a specific series of sand dunes and 'beaches' as the waters receded to current-day levels.  The oak openings were laid down roughly 12,000 years ago during the time of Lake Warren, which was significantly larger than today's Lake Erie.  After Lake Warren's water level dropped due to the opening of the now ice-free Niagara outlet, its beaches and wind-blown dunes were left high and dry; the only evidence of the ancient glacial lake.  This sand-deposited area over time became the oak openings region we know and love today.

The following post may seem lengthy but that's due largely to the most 'fun' part of this blog, the photographs!  I tried to keep the writing to a minimum and allow the attention to be kept where it belongs: on the gorgeous fall scenery and wildflowers of the oak openings.

Expanse of open oak savanna 

I tactfully planned my initial hike and stop of the morning to correspond with the freshness and newly-opened flowers of one of the day's most anticipated wildflowers.  I just blogged about the lesser fringed gentians (Gentianopsis virgata) and now it's time to meet its nearly identical brother: the greater fringed gentian (Gentianopsis crinita).

Greater Fringed Gentian  ~  Gentianopsis crinita

Sparkling like brilliant sapphires scattered about the wet sedge meadow were the first showstoppers of the day and they alone were worth the two hour drive I had awoken so early for.  While I had seen the lesser fringed species before, this was the first time I was laying eyes on these delicate beauties.

Greater Fringed Gentian  ~  Gentianopsis crinita

At first glance it seems there is very little different between the two species but as I mentioned in my earlier post the shorter and wider lanceolate leaves combined with the heavier fringing around the petal margins help differentiate the two.  Each individual petal seems to have been sewn from the finest silk with the ends allowed to tatter and fray in the chilled autumn winds.

Greater Fringed Gentian  ~  Gentianopsis crinita

I was a bit late to catch the fringed gentians in peak performance but enough plants were still exhibiting their timeless charm to warrant plenty of photographs.  The more robust plants certainly drew the most attention and I can only imagine what they must have looked like at their prime a few days before.

Greater Fringed Gentian  ~  Gentianopsis crinita

One thing I did begin to notice between the two species of fringed gentian was the slight color difference and apparent bi-color scheme many of the oak openings specimens exhibited.  The two gentians pictured above showed off the white and blue color combination quite exquisitely and almost looked liked tasty pieces of candy.  Almost.

Hillside Blueberry  ~  Vaccinium pallidum

The striking blue color of the gentians wasn't the only noticeable color to the landscape as I moved into the drier savanna habitat.  A brilliant fireworks display of scarlet lit up the shrub layer underneath the oak groves from the endless patchwork of hillside blueberry (Vaccinium pallidum).  Planning an early summer trip to the oak openings to coincide with the ripening of practically an infinite number of blueberries is an excellent and delicious idea!

Flat-topped White Aster  ~  Doellingeria umbellata

Waving in the brisk morning breeze as white beacons set against the fiery blaze of blueberries and sumacs were the lovely flat-topped white asters (Doellingeria umbellata).  This attractive fall bloomer can reach heights of up to seven feet in more moist and rich soiled conditions and occurs predominately in the northeastern quarter of the state while more scattered to the west and south.

Cinnamon Fern  ~  Osmundastrum cinnamomeum

The brilliant golden glow from these sterile cinnamon fern (Osmundastrum cinnamomeum) fronds were hard to ignore as I waded through the undergrowth of the oak savannas.  With their photosynthetic jobs done for the year and the fronds drained of chlorophyll I guess it's only up to us humans to find any worth in their seasonal death.

Bushy Aster  ~  Symphyotrichum dumosum

Another aster bravely sporting its end of the season flowers was the state-threatened bushy aster (Symphyotrichum dumosum).  It's love and affinity for open, sandy habitat comes as no surprise for a species that makes one of its last strongholds in the state here in the oak openings.

Bushy Aster  ~  Symphyotrichum dumosum

The asters can certainly seem to blend together in their diversity and subtle differences but the bushy aster thankfully has a characteristic that routinely seems to set it apart.  I say 'seems' to, as this particular plant doesn't show it off as clearly as I'd like.  Looking along the terminal branching stems you can make out little leaf-like bracts that run up and down the stem.  They are more appressed than normal on this plant but many others showed off the trait nicely.  Naturally, the plant I decide to photograph would be the black sheep of the group!

The shrubby under story of the oak savannas and knolls

With the oaks among the last species of trees to change color, it was an odd experience paying more attention to the under story and shrub layer for explosive fall foliage than up in the branches of the trees.  The deep scarlet reds in the photo above belong to winged sumac (Rhus copallina) and provided one of the best splashes of color under the oaks and hickories.

Yellow Ladies-tresses orchid  ~  Spiranthes ochroleuca

Probably the most anticipated and biggest reason for my drive up to the area was to search out one of the very few remaining Ohio native species of orchid I had yet to see.  With some helpful suggestions from a good friend who lives in the area and teaches at Toledo University, plus a little luck I was able to succeed in marking orchid number 44 of 48 off my list: yellow ladies'-tresses (Spiranthes ochroleuca)!

Yellow Ladies-tresses orchid  ~  Spiranthes ochroleuca

Long considered a mere variety in the Spiranthes cernua complex, the yellow ladies-tresses was recently re-elevated to full species status after new and more conclusive genetic research had determined the species worthy.  To a seasoned and experienced observer of the Spiranthes genus I find this taxon to have inflorescences of a slightly different look to its close relatives S. cernua and S. magnicamporum.  I plan on getting more into this confusing group of orchids in a later blog post but there is one nice to help separate this species.

Yellow Ladies-tresses orchid  ~  Spiranthes ochroleuca

It's not called the 'yellow' ladies'-tresses for no reason!  The undersides of each individual inflorescence is colored with a honey-yellow patch that can be seen quite well in the photograph above.  If you like the look of the Spiranthes genus of orchids keep reading because there's more to come.

Autumn Coralroot  ~  Corallorhiza odontorhiza

Not far from the patch of yellow ladies'-tresses was a scattering of another late-blooming orchid, autumn coralroot (Corallorhiza odontorhiza).  This is one of those plants where being lucky is better than being good when it comes to finding it.  It rarely gets more than four to five inches tall with the flowers themselves being excruciatingly tiny and not very showy at all.  In fact, the flowers pictured above are about as showy and 'open' as they ever get.

Autumn Coralroot  ~  Corallorhiza odontorhiza

It may not win any awards for beauty or interest but I still hold it by the same love and standards for the rest of its family's brethren.  Much like the other members of the Corallorhiza  genus, this plant lacks chlorophyll and solely relies on its saprophytic habit of leeching nutrients out of other plants and organic matter.

Glaucous Greenbrier  ~  Smilax glauca

What happens to be the least formidable and prickly of the notorious greenbriers is also apparently the most colorful come fall!  These gorgeous leaves of the glaucous greenbrier (Smilax glauca) caught my eyes from a ways and I was unsure of what they were until I got closer.  I affectionately call species of Smilax  'shin-rippers' for their aggressive ability to go through your clothing and claw at your flesh underneath.

Low-bush Blueberry  ~  Vaccinium angustifolium

In the more open and drier areas of dune and knoll habitat were large continuous colonies of low-bush blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium), an uncommon species here in Ohio that's largely relegated to the northeastern quarter and oak openings region.  This species is commercially valuable in the New England states where it is much more common and harvested for its exceptionally delicious blueberries.

Wet field full of nodding ladies'-tresses (Spiranthes cernua)

As I approached an area with a seasonally wet depression I found it impossible to ignore the hundreds of brilliant white stalks blooming all around the margins.  I had been here earlier in the year to see and photograph the Loesel's twayblade orchid (Liparis loeselii) and decided it couldn't hurt to see what the spot was like this time around.  Boy was I glad I did!

Nodding Ladies'-tresses  ~  Spiranthes cernua

The white stalks proved to be the ever-variable nodding ladies'-tresses orchid (Spiranthes cernua); and more of them than I had ever seen in my life!  I wonder due to the dense groupings and clusters of the plants if this species doesn't benefit from having the ability to spread vegetatively through creeping rhizomes and thus create such large masses.

Nodding Ladies'-tresses  ~  Spiranthes cernua

The nodding ladies did a wonderful job to brighten up the bleak and drab grass-dominated landscape of the depression and were just about the lone wildflower still doing its thing.  Most of the orchids were located around and just inside the margins of the bowl but a few seemed pleased to hangout on the grassy hummocks raised above the sand.

Nodding Ladies'-tresses  ~  Spiranthes cernua

I don't think anyone can complain about seeing a few different species of orchid still in bloom this late in September.  Certainly not your blogger, who everyone knows has just a little bit of a passion for them!  I don't think the Spiranthes  get the credit they deserve from the average naturalist or wildflower enthusiast.  Their snow-white, jeweled appearance and small stature create a perfect combination worth kneeling down to admire.  Not to mention some have the most fresh and intoxicating of smells.

Soapwort Gentian  ~  Gentiana saponaria

After wandering all over the region and stopping at the more impressive nature preserves and parks like Kitty Todd, Irwin Prairie, and Lou Campbell, it was time to make my last stop for the day and see if I could bat for the cycle and successfully find all my target plants.  Not long into my search of wading around in the tall grasses and I spotted my prize in full, glorious flower.

Soapwort Gentian  ~  Gentiana saponaria

Soapwort gentian (Gentiana saponaria) is an endangered species in the state that is only extant here in Lucas county.  In my quest to see all of Ohio's native gentians this one had been a glaring hole on my list for quite a while and was graciously marked off upon seeing its stunning face for the first time.

Soapwort Gentian  ~  Gentiana saponaria

The soapwort gentian can easily be confused with the much more common bottled gentian (G. andrewsii) but there are a few ways to tell them apart: soapwort gentian is a more light to medium blue color with more loosely-arranged corolla tips that don't close nearly as tight as the bottle gentian which has much darker blue flowers.  Also, soapwort gentian tends to appear in more dry and sandy habitats such as savannas, prairies, and thickets; while bottle gentian occurs in moist-wet ditches, thickets, and swampy areas.

Whew, what a day botanizing and exploring the oak openings!  The weather started out as overcast and chilly but by afternoon's end the sun was shining and temperatures had warmed up to create the perfect fall day.  I can't wait until next year to get up here again and spend more time out in this infinitely unique and fascinating ecosystem choked full of rare and interesting plant life.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Fringed Gentians at Betsch Fen

The other day I was going back through some older posts I had published in previous years when one particular topic caught my eye and reminded me I had a certain fen complex to pay a visit to before the growing season was done.  About this exact same time last fall I wrote about the stunning lesser fringed gentians (Gentianopsis virgata); an Ohio rarity that graces a small number of the state's fen complexes and sedge meadows.  Reading back through I noticed I make specific mention of wanting to return to this site the following autumn and experience their electric blue beauty all over again.  I owed myself that much to cap off another wildly entertaining and successful year of botanizing my revered home state.

Lesser Fringed Gentians  ~  Gentianopsis virgata

Wednesday's tend to be my least busy day and with the weather forecast calling for a gorgeous day I decided it was now or never to see gentians this time around.  I asked my good friend and fellow nature blogger, Michael Whittemore to accompany me because places like this deserve to be shared and experienced by others who love and appreciate the natural world as much as myself.  Ecosystems and habitats like Betsch fen are disappearing every day at the likes of mankind's destructive hands and nature's natural succession to forest.

I picked Mike up just as the sun was rising for the hour drive to the fen from the Athens area.  The warm, golden glow of the first rays illuminated the rolling hills of southeastern Ohio and splashed the changing trees with its warm light.  The fire oranges and deep scarlets of the chlorophyll drained leaves contrasted sharply against the sapphire blue skies and all combined into a gorgeous country drive that Mike and I could not have enjoyed more.  Upon arriving we slid on our rubber boots and away we went into the open expanse of alkaline fen.

Lesser Fringed Gentians  ~  Gentianopsis virgata

We followed the deer paths through the sea of browning Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) and out into the primary fen opening where I remembered seeing the most gentians from the previous visit.  It wasn't long before blue patches began to appear, glowing with droplets of dew in the intensifying morning light.  I immediately noticed there seemed to be a lot more gentians compared to last year.  In fact they were everywhere and easily numbered in the hundreds of plants!  I could tell from the look on Mike's face he was happier than ever to have tagged along.

Lesser Fringed Gentians  ~  Gentianopsis virgata

The primary reason for our early start that morning wasn't for naught as we found the gentians still tightly bundled and waiting for the warmth of the sun to unfurl their fringed perfection and beckon the day's first pollinators to come pay it a worthwhile visit.  This opening and closing feature allows for two distinct and equally exquisite 'stages' of the flower and will keep your camera shutter clicking all morning long.

Lesser Fringed Gentians  ~  Gentianopsis virgata

The recent history of Betsch fen is quite the success story and an example of what exciting results can be acheieved from proper and active management of the habitat.  The open fen meadows had filled in with woody vegetation over time and had almost fully choked out the gentians when the site was first bought by the Ohio chapter of the Nature Conservancy years ago.  As the woody vegetation was removed and the sunlight restored to full strength over the newly cleared meadow, back came the brilliant blue wildflowers of the fall.

Mike admiring and photographing a patch of lovely gentians

While the fringed gentians were certainly the object of our desire, they weren't the only wildflowers to still be blooming in the wet fen meadow.  The honey-yellow, flat-topped flower heads of Ohio goldenrod (Oligoneuron ohioense) and their accompanying clumps of green basal leaves are easily visible in the photograph above.  Bog goldenrod (Solidago uliginosa) and rough-leaved goldenrod (S. patula) also intermittently occurred throughout and were all just about done flowering.  A few other wildflowers still hanging on were the purple-stemmed (Symphyotrichum puniceum) and willow-leaved (S. praealtus) asters; Canadian burnet (Sanguisorba canadensis); and purple false foxglove (Agalinis purpurea).

Lesser Fringed Gentians and Nodding Ladies-tresses (Spiranthes cernua)

Another exciting realization was the increased number of flowering stalks of the nodding ladies'-tresses (Spiranthes cernua) orchid in select areas of the fen.  In some cases one could enjoy both exciting species growing side-by-side.

Nodding Ladies'-tresses  ~  Spiranthes cernua

The nodding ladies'-tresses is a frequent associate of our fens and wet meadows, prairies, fields, and thickets throughout the Great Lakes and eastern North America.  Their snow white, crystal-like flowers stand out immediately against their more bleak surroundings.  Determining you have a Spiranthes species of orchid in front of you isn't too hard a conclusion to come to but which one can make you scratch your head and create tedious judgement decisions on varying similar characteristics.  I've found the more time I spend with this genus in the field and its taxa, the more confident and qualified I feel I've become at making an ID.  Spiranthes cernua can be identified by its pure white, two-ranked inflorescences; lack of fragrance; and calcareous fen habitat.  This species is notoriously variable throughout its range but here in Ohio the above characteristics seem to hold pretty true.

Nodding Ladies'-tresses  ~  Spiranthes cernua

The nodding ladies'-tresses comes from a complex group of excruciatingly similar species that until recently were all lumped into S. cernua and considered mere varieties of a single taxon.  Since then at least four different taxa (S. cernua, S. magnicamporum, S. ochrolueca, and S. odorata) have been split out and elevated to full species status.  It doesn't stop there though, as some botanists and taxonomists recognize a handful of forms strictly within S. cernua.  Some may pull their hair out at the sound of it but I consider it a reason to investigate and a topic that deserves further study and research.

Lesser Fringed Gentians  ~  Gentianopsis virgata

Not long after our arrival and the sun's energy having been diffused across the landscape, the gentians were fully opened and exhibiting their sublime fringed petals of the most astonishing blue you'll ever seen in a wildflower.  No tricks or changes, no need to check your monitor's settings; the fringed gentians really are that vibrant and staggering.

Gentianopsis virgata distribution map: courtesy BONAP

Looking at the overall distribution and range of the lesser fringed gentian you can see that south-central Ohio is about as far south this species ever ventures.  Its presence at Betsch fen and the rest of the state is owed to the last glacial period and the immense ice sheets that carried it down from the north.  The cold, seeping groundwater and calcareous conditions of the fen have been just the trick to keep them around.

Lesser Fringed Gentians  ~  Gentianopsis virgata

Ohio is home to two native species of fringed gentian: the presented lesser fringed and another taxon called the greater fringed gentian (G. crinita).  Both are strikingly similar but can be told apart by taking a look at the leaves.  The greater fringed has shorter, more wide lanceolate leaves; while the lesser fringed exhibits long, much more narrow (almost linear) leaves.  The amount of fringing around the end of the petals (as suggested by their names) can be used but is not very consistent and a very variable feature.

Lesser Fringed Gentians  ~  Gentianopsis virgata

After a couple hours thoroughly exploring the fen and filling our memory cards with photographs of the charming gentians, Mike and I decided to head back to the car and return to civilization for some breakfast. With my stomach growling as we tromped out of the fen I took one last glance out across the grasses and wildflowers and smiled knowing I'd be back a year later to spend another memorable autumn morning with one of my favorite botanical beauts.  I don't think I'd have to ask Mike twice to come back either.  There's just a certain lure these plants have on the willing, a siren's call that this botanist can't ignore and quite frankly has no desire to.